What is the largest organ of the body?
If you read the title to this blog you could probably guess the answer: it is your skin, which to many may sound strange since many would not equate this elastic shrink wrap of our bones, muscles, and inner workings with anything organ-like in the way they are typically understood. In truth the skin performs eight separate and vital functions for our body’s wellbeing.
It is also our largest interface with the outer world and yet we mask it almost entirely by materials, both manmade and natural of every type from the minute we wake to the moment we fall asleep. What other animals works so hard to cover their natural form but humans — we the naked apes? The book by the same title was so named because its author, Desmond Morris, curator of mammals at London Zoo, determined that out of 193 species of monkeys and apes, our nearest evolutionary relatives, only humans are not covered in hair.
The desire for touch is hardwired into our naked bodies, according to Morris, driven in large part by our sexuality suggesting that sparse body hair evolved because the “nakedness” helped intensify pair bonding through the increased tactile pleasure of skin on skin. While Morris has been denounced as a facile observer and popular scientist, nobody could deny the pleasure or necessity of touch, whether sexual, affectionate or assuring.
Undoubtedly our early ancestors without the benefit of body hair and potentially without the warmth of a fire, found both warmth and solace when huddled together against unremitting cold. And are we so different from our hairy ancestors in the bonding element that comes with close social grooming as ritual?
The wire mother
Some of the most heartless experiments held in the name of science were carried out by American psychologist Harry Harlow in the 50s who conducted the now infamous Wire Mother experiments on a colony of Rhesus monkeys to assess the nature of love and maternal attachment.
In his total isolation experiments, baby monkeys would be left alone for three, six, 12, or 24 months of total social deprivation which produced monkeys that were severely psychologically disturbed.
No monkey has died during isolation. When initially removed from total social isolation, however, they usually go into a state of emotional shock, characterized by … autistic self-clutching and rocking. One of six monkeys isolated for 3 months refused to eat after release and died 5 days later. The autopsy report attributed death to emotional anorexia. … The effects of 6 months of total social isolation were so devastating and debilitating that we had assumed initially that 12 months of isolation would not produce any additional decrement. This assumption proved to be false; 12 months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially…’
These horrific experiments conclusively demonstrated the importance of love and attachment in early development and the alien indifference humans can exhibit upon other species in the pursuit of their own goals and interests.
It’s difficult to see how such cruel ends could ever justify the means but humans are inventive.
The curse of the lockdown
Without drawing direct comparisons, I wonder what the last two years of lockdowns and social isolation have done to us as a species? Anecdotally, we have all been part of a broad and largely unregulated experiment which has placed an inordinate psychological stress on millions upon millions of people. This has undoubtedly been harrowing for those who were deprived of vital social contact in the first place — the elderly and disabled being a good case in point. All this social deprivation will serve as the data backdrop to a raft of psychological and sociological studies as the world emerges blinking back into the post pandemic light.
Hopefully we can learn from them and do better before the next pandemic.
We are a tremendously adaptable species — living proof of Darwin’s main contention that it is the not the fittest that survive, but those most adaptable to change. But all species have their limits and I wonder if in this late juncture of our evolution, we are reaching ours. Late stage capitalism has already done its work to atomize and fragment the social contract. Whatever comes next?
So many people in the world today have become one step further removed from the important healing nature of touch. Physiologically we are all tuned to the hormone, oxytocin the association with which, like in Harlow’s harrowing experiments starts in that most important phase our lives, maternal pair bonding, and going forward is hypothesized to promote similar bonding in social groups from positive feedback loops.
It’s easy for non-scientific people like me to draw broad brushstroke observations across society in what is obviously a far more nuanced picture but touch is universal and necessary and people have been forcibly conditioned in recent years for risk aversion and social distancing.
Naturally enough, humans are not monkeys, (even if they behave like them) but for example, we share 99 per cent of our DNA with chimpanzees. Based on scientific observation, some anthropologists hypothesize certain primate species are going through their own stone age evolutionary path. Where, I wonder, do we fall in our cultural evolution as a species? It sometimes occurs to me that we are doing everything to reach the escape velocity of our own biology to reach new paradigms without questioning why.
But our physicality cannot be denied as warm blooded, pro social creatures. With all the various tripwires now created around inappropriate touching, the vile threat of sexual grooming and pedophilia and the fear of infection, we are losing sight of the importance of touch, every bit as necessary as oxygen and food for our sustenance.
The loving touch
Just moments before I finish this article, for instance my special needs daughter Cara came to where I am sitting here at my computer and spontaneously wrapped her arms around me and my wife. In this small unsolicited gesture of love and bonding, I finish this article with a happy warm glow — call it oxytocin or love, it was an important moment and a beautiful gesture of our common humanity. If you can do the same today and every day, I thoroughly recommend it.